“Prominent throughout the African Diaspora for centuries”
BALTIMORE, Maryland––Afro-Vegan Society founder Brenda Sanders on February 1, 2023 commenced the organization’s third annual Veguary campaign, “providing culturally relevant content on plant-based eating during Black History Month.
“Throughout the month of February,” Sanders explained, “the Afro-Vegan Society will host free programming that includes daily social media content, interactive video livestreams, a resource library, a community event calendar, educational videos, a Facebook support group, and more.”
White folks could usefully pay attention too.
“Veguary is open to everyone”
“Veguary is open to everyone,” Sanders emphasized. “Participants can sign up and learn more at https://www.afrovegansociety.org/veguary.
“Founded in 2016,” Sanders added, the “Afro-Vegan Society offers information, resources and support to encourage and inspire people in marginalized communities to transition to vegan living,” venerating the legacy of forebears “such as Dick Gregory, Coretta Scott King, and Angela Davis,” whose examples helped to inspire Sanders as she gradually developed a local project she started as a lone volunteer into a national organization helping to power a growing African-American vegan movement.
25 years a vegan
Sanders, 45, is soon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her becoming vegan, and her 15th year of vegan activism, detailed by Anna Mackiewicz on April 24, 2022 at https://unboundproject.org/brenda-sanders/.
As a child growing up in Baltimore housing projects, Sanders told Mackiewicz, she ate “the most processed, most unhealthy, salty, sugary, fatty animal products that you could think of—the cheapest crap. That was what was being trucked in and dumped into our community.”
Ten years into her own choice of a vegan lifestyle, Sanders “emptied her savings account, bought an assortment of cooking equipment, and started Better Health, Better Life,” the first of her vegan food projects, Mackiewicz narrated.
Knocked on doors
“She knocked on the doors of churches and community centers, and anywhere that would have her,” Mackiewicz continued. “She was met with disbelief and was told time and again that [low-income Afro-American] did not care about their health, and would not eat vegan food.”
But Sanders, who cheerfully admits to being stubborn, “ran cooking demonstrations and shared all she had learned about the health benefits of a vegan diet, sometimes to one person, sometimes a hundred,” Mackiewicz wrote.
“Wherever she went, people were eager to learn, and parents wanted better choices for their children. They left armed with recipes and printouts.”
Since finding fresh vegetables in inner city stores was difficult, Mackiewicz explained, “Sanders and friends transformed a vacant lot into a thriving community garden. It served as a safe haven for birds and other wildlife, and provided vegetables for residents until it was closed after two seasons by the city for development.”
Sanders then “reached out to fellow vegan and restaurateur Naijha Wright-Brown of The Land of Kush,” Mackiewicz said, “and together they dreamed up a free vegan festival that would connect people interested in veganism to vendors, speakers, and educational resources.”
Sanders and Brown in 2014 drew 1,200 people to their first Vegan Soulfest.
“By 2019, the event attracted over 14,000 attendees,” Mackiewicz mentioned.
Along the way Sanders became aware that Baltimore was a longtime hub of animal rights activism, including vegan advocacy.
“Bolstered by this newfound network,” Mackiewicz recounted, “she moved from knocking on doors to establishing a dedicated vegan community center called Thrive Baltimore. Here, she could run regular classes and expand her offerings to include a four-week vegan education program, film screenings, guest chef cooking demos, and cooking competitions.”
The 2020 arrival of COVID-19 forced all that activity online. But that led Sanders to form the Afro-Vegan Society, “a project rooted at the intersection of human health, animal rights, and social justice,” according to Mackiewicz.
Veguary, celebrated throughout each February since 2021, is the most nationally prominent Afro-Vegan Society project, among many.
“Plant-based traditions have been prominent in cultures throughout the African Diaspora for centuries,” explains the Veguary web site, https://www.afrovegansociety.org/veguary, one goal of which is to further recognition of this aspect of African-American culture. This in turn is integral to the other concerns of Black History Month.
“In the U.S., civil rights leaders made some of the earliest and most concise assessments of the connections between our society’s systemic racial violence, and the cruelty of the animal agriculture industry,” the Veguary web site adds.
“Today, African American’s are the fastest growing population of new vegans,” the Veguary web site contends, supported by food industry demographic research.
“Afro-Vegan Society’s Veguary program is designed to create a pathway to vegan living,” the site says, “for people in our community who are interested in making a lifestyle change, but need support from a community that understands and centers the black experience.”
Indeed, Afro-Americans, women especially, have been leading the movement toward a plant-based diet for decades longer than most animal rights and animal welfare societies have even recognized opposition to meat-eating as a humane priority.
George Washington Carver
African-American vegan advocacy might be said to have begun with George Washington Carver, who was neither vegan nor even vegetarian, but advocated a plant-based diet and developed many plant-based alternatives to meat products.
Born in Missouri at some point before slavery was abolished in 1865, Carver was kidnapped by Arkansas slave traders at a week of age, along with his mother and sister, and sold in Kentucky. His original white owner, Moses Carver, tracked George Washington Carver down, brought him back to Missouri, and after failing to find his mother and sister, raised George Washington Carver with his own children until George Washington Carver left home at age 13 to seek an education.
George Washington Carver went on to become a professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1896 until his death in 1943. He became widely known as one of the foremost botanists of his time, a pioneer of sustainable organic agriculture, and a prolific inventor of commercially successful food products and processes.
Not veg, but developed vegan products
Much less known at the time, and barely remembered today, is that George Washington Carver enjoyed the acquaintance of many of the most prominent vegans and vegetarians of his time, long before the term “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson in 1944.
Among George Washington Carver’s friends and associates were fellow food inventor and entrepreneur John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), who went on to lead the movement that won Indian independence from the British empire..
With the encouragement of Kellogg and Gandhi, Carver developed an entire line of “mock meat” products, including “mock chicken,” “mock duck,” “mock goose,” and “mock veal,” along with a variety of other meatless alternative protein sources.
Carver and associates tried to develop markets for these products through tent circuit evangelism and lecture tours, finding some interest among Seventh Day Adventists emulating their vegetarian prophetess Ellen White (1827-1915).
The advent of radio and television mostly ended tent circuit evangelism and lecture tours, but opened opportunities for another under-appreciated African-American humane educator, the late Dick Gregory, whose influence came chiefly through his success via electronic media.
A heart attack felled Dick Gregory on August 19, 2017 in Washington D.C., an end he had long seen coming and had forestalled through diet and exercise for more than fifty years.
Knowing he was at high risk from heart disease inspired Gregory to give up eating meat in 1965, and to become a vegan raw foodist fructarian in 1967.
“The brutality of carnivorousness”
Almost as soon as Gregory quit eating meat, he recognized “the brutality of carnivorousness and questioned his relationship to American consumer capitalism,” recounted Jennifer Jensen Wallach in “Black Nationalism & the Post-1964 Culinary Turn,” published in 2014 by the journal Southern Studies.
“Participation in the civil rights movement extinguished Gregory’s appetite for animal flesh,” continued Wallach. “He began to recognize a link between violence against humans and violence against nonhuman animals, noting that ‘Animals and humans suffer and die alike.’”
But going vegetarian alone was not enough to help Gregory out of the high-risk-for-heart-attack bracket, Wallach wrote.
Gregory went further, to become a vegan fructarian, Wallach detailed, “after his weight jumped from 167 pounds as a carnivore to 288 pounds as a vegetarian who would ‘go into a soul food restaurant and wipe out the yams, greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, squash, and dressing.’”
“Although Gregory’s strict fruitarianism inspired few wholesale converts,” Wallach summarized, “his commitment to maintaining the physical health of the black community was widespread in nationalist circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
The MOVE cult
The Philadelphia black nationalist organization MOVE––whose initials apparently never actually stood for any one thing––included vegetarianism and communal living as focal tenets when founder John Africa began it in 1972 as the Christian Movement for Life.
MOVE appears to have drifted away from vegetarianism before a deadly 1985 conflict with the Philadelphia police led to the deaths of 11 members.
By then, though, vegetarian teachings had gained considerable momentum among African Americans from coast to coast.
Mary Keys Burgess & the King family
Mary Keys Burgess published Soul to Soul: A New Vegetarian Cookbook, heralded as the first “veggie soul food” cookbook, from Santa Cruz, California, in 1976.
Dexter Scott King, second son of Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1961, turned vegetarian after a 1987 visit to a health spa Gregory founded in the Bahamas.
Through his influence, his mother Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) became vegan for the last 12 years of her life, as did several of her friends and other family members.
Traci Thomas, who founded the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia in 2002, the first of an international string of Black Vegetarian Societies, credits Gregory with inspiring her to give up meat in 1994.
Thomas was among the first vegans––of any ethnicity––to win national media notice as a vegan teacher and advocate without initially achieving celebrity as an athlete, entertainer, or spiritual leader. Her 2002 recommendation of corn on the cob as a simple vegan focal food for summer picnics won extensive notice in Midwestern small town newspapers that might never before have published the word “vegan.”
Thomas followed up by popularizing vegan recipes consisting of five ingredients or fewer, to appeal to anyone whose time for shopping and cooking is limited.
Nearly twenty years after the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia debuted, Pinky Cole, 32, a fellow Georgian, founded Slutty Vegan, an Atlanta burger counter, which rapidly became “the place to be seen waiting, especially if you’re an African-American celebrity,” observed New York Times reporter Kim Severson on July 1, 2019.
Over the next few years, Slutty Vegan expanded successfully to eight locations serving majority black neighborhoods around Atlanta, still attracting a clientele including athletes, musicians, and even Stacy Abrams, leader of the Democratic Party in Georgia.
A subsidiary, Bar Vegan, offers cocktail theatre at the Ponce City Market mall in Atlanta.
On January 13, 2023, however, Cole and business partners Aaron Mattison and Jason Crain were sued by former Bar Vegan bartender Morgan Georgia on behalf of herself and other current and former employees, who allege that Cole, Mattison, and Crain illegally withheld 25% of the employees’ tips for themselves and the restaurant while also paying them less than the $7.25. per hour federal minimum wage.
Cole has vehemently denied the allegations.
Dick Gregory also inspired vegan health educator Tracye McQuirter, who earned a masters degree in public health nutrition from New York University before writing By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat (2010).
“During my sophomore year at Amherst College,” McQuirter recalls, “our Black Student Union brought Dick Gregory to campus to talk about the economic, political, and social state of African Americans. But instead, he flipped the script and talked about the plate of black America.”
Eventually McQuirter, her mother, and her sister all went vegan together.
“What truly moved me into practicing veganism was reading about Dick Gregory and seeing the connections he made to institutionalized racism/classism/sexism, black liberation, the black community’s ‘health crisis,’ and dietary beliefs/practices,” recalled A. Breeze Harper, co-editor with Pattrice Jones of the 2009 anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society.
Tabitha Bonita Brown
The rags-to-riches rise of Tabitha Bonita Brown, 42, may mark a new phase in African-American vegan advocacy, in which African-Americans lead acceptance of a plant-based diet across the spectrum of society.
Brown was born in Eden, North Carolina, an old textile mill town, never to be confused with the Garden of Eden for which it was named by planter and slaveholder William Byrd III circa 1740.
Dreaming of becoming an actress, Brown struggled for 20 years in a variety of jobs, pursuing her career ambitions with only occasional apparent breakthroughs that turned into dead ends, from North Carolina to California to Florida and back again to North Carolina.
Illness after birthing her son led Brown to veganism, at her daughter’s suggestion, in 2012.
Continued touring tradition
Five years later, still chasing her dreams of acting when she could, but eking out a living as an Uber driver, Brown in December 2017 happened to post a video review of a Whole Foods Market vegan bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich that went viral.
Hired by Whole Foods Market as a brand ambassador, Brown toured the U.S. making personal public appearances much as Dick Gregory had, and as did Afro-American humane missionaries William Key, John W. Lemon, Richard Carroll, his son Seymour Carroll, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell did, decades earlier.
By 2018 Brown had a Facebook page sharing vegan recipes and product reviews with 2.1 million followers. She added a TikTok account in early March 2020, acquiring another two million followers (probably with significant overlap) within just five weeks.
Turning stereotypes around
By June 2020 Brown also had her own television show, All Love, on the Ellen Digital Network, a subsidiary of Ellen Digital Ventures, fronted by talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, broadcast by Warner Bros’ Digital Networks.
Brown was also named the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “person of the year” for 2020.
In January 2023 the Target department store chain announced the introduction of a new line of Tabitha Brown kitchen items, and Brown also introduced her own line of food products.
Much as William Key was criticized in some circles more than 100 years earlier for playing up to, and off of, “Uncle Tom” stereotypes, Brown has been criticized––unfairly––as an “Aunt Jemima.”
Reality is that the “Uncle Tom” depicted for more than a century by white men in blackface in touring minstrel shows shared only a name with the Uncle Tom character created by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) in her 1852 influential anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stowe’s Uncle Tom was a strong, brave man who deceived slave owners and hunters to help other slaves escape. Her Uncle Tom was eventually beaten to death for refusing to betray the location of two of the fugitive slaves he assisted.
Who was “Aunt Jemima”?
The “Aunt Jemima” character originated in an 1864 minstrel show. Many African-Americans, from the earliest record of any response, found “Aunt Jemima” offensive.
But former slave Nancy Green began a transformation of the character at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.
Hired to play “Aunt Jemima” by the R.T. Davis Milling Company, to promote one of the first ready-made pancake mixes, Green––like William Key as “Uncle Tom”––superficially acted out the stereotype.
At the same time, Green established herself as the first successful African-American brand model. She was also one of the first commercially successful African-American storytellers, though she never received much of the money generated through her popularity.
Most significantly, Nancy Green furnished a positive introduction to African-Americans for hundreds of thousands of Midwestern fair-goers at the very time that the Ku Klux Klan was pushing into the region, amplifying violently negative stereotypes in places where African-American emigration out of the South had only just begun.
Green was succeeded in 1900 by Agnes Moodey, also believed to have been born into slavery. Her popularity appears to have inspired the 1921 invention of the wholly fictional “Betty Crocker” character, a white woman, who has promoted product lines rivaling those marketed by “Aunt Jemima” ever since.
Following Moodey, “Aunt Jemima” was played after 1933 by Anna Robinson, Anna Short Harrington, Rosa Washington Riles, Edith Wilson, Ethyl Ernestine Harper, Rosa Lee Moore Hall, and Aylene Lewis.
Wilson parlayed her role as “Aunt Jemima” into a successful singing career; Harper became a successful radio and television actress.
Black History Month
Black History Month is a time not only for black people to remember and appreciate forebears, but also for white people to remember and appreciate black people who taught us something, and are teaching still.
These people include especially the diverse voices of the Afro-Vegan Society, Black Vegetarian Societies, and all of the other African Americans who are advancing the cause of not eating animals.
Dedicating a Black History Month campaign to veganism, as Veguary does, can only be seen as an extraordinarily generous gesture, even as far too many animal advocacy organizations remain blind to the dedication, talent, and achievements of African-Americans who have already made huge contributions to the causes of both animal and human well-being.
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